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Biking and Perception

November 17, 2010

If I could add any line to Woody Allen’s observation that the only cultural advantage to Los Angeles is that “you can make a right turn on a red light,” I’d say that the reason I don’t ever want to leave New York is that I don’t ever want to live anywhere where you can’t get the Sunday New York Times on Saturday.  It’s like news from the future!

That Saturday paper delivery marks the start of a weekend ritual for me and my wife.  We open the Sunday magazine to The Ethicist, reading the questions and debating our answers before checking to see if we agree with Randy Cohen, the column’s author.

Last night, I got the chance to hear Randy Cohen speak at a fundraiser for Streetfilms.  While many in the crowd of livable streets advocates offered sustained applause to NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, I was very excited for Cohen’s presentation.  He’s a city cyclist and has a lot to say on shared spaces in New York.  The theme of his short talk was perception and how, in the complicated world of city cycling and transportation, it often trumps reality.

Cohen opened his talk by asking what he admitted was a somewhat depressing question for the otherwise enthusiastic and cheerful crowd.  “Why is there so much hatred directed at cyclists these days?”  Despite–or perhaps because of–trends towards higher ridership, more bike lanes, and a greater consciousness of the ill effects of cars, there is a bit of a backlash brewing against cyclists, he said.  People all over New York, if not the country, are living under a false impression that they are imperiled by a growing and menacing tide of bicyclists.  They are suffering, Cohen said, from “false consciousness.”

Cohen brought up four points that illustrate false consciousness and the problem of perception in the battle for livable streets.

  • Some people are “conservative by temperament” and fear change.

Cohen used the example of Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis, who introduced the idea of hand washing into surgery.  The idea that a doctor would not wash his hands before operating on patient seems completely ignorant today, but when Semmelweis introduced the concept in 1847 he was met with abject ridicule by the medical establishment.  (In fact, Semmelweis was dismissed as insane by his colleagues, institutionalized, and died, ironically, of sepsis.)

There’s a funny thing about change, Cohen noted: once it’s put into place things become knowable.  Just as we can measure infection rates in surgery before and after the institution of hand washing protocols, the DOT can measure things such as automobile speed and accident rates.  And guess what?  Traffic calming and bike lanes make people measurably safer.  This is basic science and proves, Cohen said, that not everyone’s opinions are equally valid.  The rantings of an opinion journalist or the taxi driver quoted in an eleven o’clock news segment about closing Times Square to automobile traffic should not be given equal weight with the work and research of people whose job it is to study and measure these things.

  • By changing streets, the city is inconveniencing the driving majority for the sake of a biking minority.

Another false perception, said Cohen.  Car owners in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx are a tiny minority of the overall population.  (It’s a slightly different story on Staten Island.)  In the congestion pricing debate, most of the loudest opponents in the city council or state assembly represented districts where car ownership or daily use is in the single digits.  So, in fact, the city currently inconveniences the walking, transit-using, bike-riding majority for the auto-dependent minority.  Despite the appearance that cars are everywhere, we ought to do a better job of asking who is driving, where they are from, and who is truly entitled to use the city’s rarest of resources, public space.  We need to challenge the perception that the automobile represents some majority of the population.  It simply does not.

  • The NYC DOT caters to an Upper West Side bourgeois elite.

There’s a perception in the media that it’s crunchy, treehugging, limousine liberals who are setting the policy and making things tough for Joe Commuter.  Once again, the congestion pricing debate illustrated this, with newspaper columnists and politicians claiming that tolling bridges would make commutes too expensive for poor people while having no effect on rich white people.  But this, too, is false.  The non-wealthy and non-white drive in very small numbers and improvements to transit benefits the poor and middle class much more than it does the rich.  The populist position, then, is to get people out of their cars.

  • Bikes are a menace to senior citizens and the population in general.

In 2009, 33,000 people were killed by cars nationwide.  Cohen asked the crowd to think about that for a second.  “Imagine you’re introducing a new transportation system,” Cohen said, “but there’s one catch: it will kill 33,000 people a year.”  Cohen hardly needed to point out that few Americans would think it was okay to build something from the ground up with such a high casualty rate, yet that’s where we stand with cars right now.

Cohen asked the room full of cyclists how many people knew someone who had been hospitalized as a result of being hit by a bike or who had been hospitalized themselves for the same reason.  Only two or three hands went up.  But when Cohen asked the same question, this time involving cars, almost every hand in the room went up.  Bikes may be seen as a menace, but even the most hostile, anti-bike crowd, if pressed, would have a difficult time moving that fear from perception to fact.  Anecdotes are powerful, of course, but are not statistics.  And the statistics do not back up the terrorizing fear that cyclists are said to impose on the city’s helpless elderly.

Last year, 65 155 pedestrians were killed by cars in New York City.  How many were killed by bikes?  Zero.  How many pedestrians were killed by bikes nationwide?  No one keeps track, Cohen noted, suggesting that the rate is “so trivial as to be noncontroversial.”  Cohen joked that one can find statistics for the number of Americans killed by falling out of bed, collapsing coffee tables or angry wasps, yet we don’t see movements to encourage people to sleep on the floor or keep their remote controls on the couch and we so far have not found a way to ban bees.  “Biking is safe,” Cohen said.  “We are less than a threat than bees or coffee tables.”

Being right and having the truth on one’s side is not always a surefire ticket to victory, Cohen said, but it doesn’t hurt.  The importance of Streetfilms, Cohen noted, is that Streetfilms presents the actual facts.  The Streetfilms crew goes out, camera in hand, and counters false perceptions by showing the positive effects things such as bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and bus rapid transit has on the city.

I support Streetfilms wholeheartedly and encourage anyone who rides in New York to support them, too.  If you can, please make a donation to the organization so they can continue documenting the positive changes all over New York and the world.

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6 Comments
  1. November 19, 2010 12:19 am

    Great post.
    And for the record, my wife and I first go for the Saturday crossword (despite having access to News From the Future) so that we can make ourselves feel smart (or stupid, depending on the week) over the morning coffee.

  2. November 19, 2010 10:22 am

    Thanks for pointing that out. It makes the point even better.

  3. November 19, 2010 4:55 pm

    Hey, again thanks for doing this! Alot of people were hoping we had taped it…this is the next best thing.

  4. November 19, 2010 8:03 pm

    You got it! I love what Streetfilms does. Keep it up!

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